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Safe haven for the humanist spirit

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The Thirties: Influences on Abstract Art in Britain At Annely Juda Fine Art, 23 Dering Street, London W1 until 19 September

This beautifully-hung exhibition will delight everyone who relishes the ideal of a rational 'non-objective' art that was current especially in the 1930s. The subtitle - 'Influences on Abstract Art in Britain' - allows a broad interpretation, but firmly places Britain at the end of a chain of influence from Moscow to Berlin to Amsterdam and finally to London. For, as Andrei Narkov points out in his stimulating introduction to the catalogue, 'Like an Angel of Light pursued by the Powers of Darkness, the spirit of the new humanist civilisation constantly had to flee persecution . . . for some time in the mid-thirties London became a safe haven . . . French culture in the thirties remained stubbornly insensitive to abstract art.'

Abstract art remained a predominantly northern European phenomenon. Daniel- Henry Kahnweiler, the Paris-based champion and dealer of the Cubists, mounted a closely argued attack on abstract art in his definitive book on Juan Gris (1947), condemning it as essentially decorative, and Gris himself wrote in the 1920s of representational and formal values being the 'warp and weft' of painting. The Purists in La Peinture Moderne (1925) ridiculed Mondrian's work as a distortion of true values as extreme as that of Meisonnier at the opposite pole.

There is reason to believe, however, that the polychromy of Le Corbusier's Villa La Roche (1922) was in fact inspired by Mondrian's work, and he later modified his public hostility, calling Mondrian 'an architect manque' and, even more enthusiastic, 'monk-like'. But Narkov remarks that 'even after 1945 Le Corbusier had doubts as to the value of Mondrian's work, and asked Hans Richter if the great Neo-Plastician's painting 'could be taken seriously'.'

There is a fine example of a Mondrian abstract from 1927 in this show to allow you to make up your own mind: the canvas is just off-square, and most of the proportions within it are also just off-square. The issue of abstraction also confronts you very directly in a grouping of small stringed sculptures in a wall case. At the top is a Mother and Child of 1938 by Henry Moore (regarded as an honorary abstractionist in exhibitions of this kind), and below stand some truly abstract constructions by Gabo. The strings in the Moore run from child to mother, from eye to eye and from mouth to breast; they represent desire lines. Compared to this emotive power, the stringed Gabos, elegant though they are, appear like games. The Moores generally stand out by their ferocity in this cool show.

But Gabo's technical virtuosity in the use of materials is outstanding - both in perspex (an iconic material: the transparency of glass with the flexibility of the thinnest plywood) and, surprisingly, in marble: there is a pierced relief designed in 1938 and executed in 1966-7 which uses marble as a dynamic modern material honed down to the thinnest sections in a way I have never seen elsewhere. Its oval form is suggestive of Lubetkin's Penguin Pool. Compared to this, Barbara Hepworth's marble and granite abstractions from the 1930s look very Classical, and almost staid.

The witty Max Bills from 1930-2 (when he would have been in his early twenties), using corrugated metal and polished and etched plate glass, also look very sleek and seem to prefigure High-Tech by 40 or 50 years. That rare bird, Georges Vantongerloo, is represented by three works, including a spatially fascinating mahogany sculpture from 1936 called S x R/3. Well- placed major pieces dominate each principal room - a large and serene ex-catalogue Ben Nicholson in the first, a rectangular abstraction in shades of grey, deriving its vitality from the slightly wavering hand- drawn edges of the rectangles. Then a striking red abstraction catches the eye at the far side of the second room; it is by Vordemberge-Gildewart, of 1935. The following year he would feature in the Nazis' exhibition of Degenerate Art.

James Dunnett is an architect in London

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